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Batman & Robin

By Devin D. O'Leary

July 8, 1997:  It's odd how Hollywood has treated the medium of comic books. On the one hand, it is enamored of the colorful, iconic images and mythic, action-packed storylines. On the other hand, there isn't a single person on the West Coast of America who understands what they're really all about. "Comic book" is, more often than not, used as a derogatory term to describe simple-minded stories, preposterous characters and visual overkill. Read the works of Art Spiegelman or Will Eisner sometime and tell me that comics are an unsubtle medium. The "comic book" movies that have genuinely succeeded can be counted on exactly one hand (Darkman, Robocop and The Rocketeer to name the few). Those that have failed to live up to their potential are innumerable (Darkman 2 and 3, Robocop 2 and 3, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Punisher, Captain America, Judge Dredd, Blankman and Meteor Man to name just a few). Somewhere in-between lie the Batman movies.

For those keeping track, Batman & Robin marks the fourth installment of the megasuccessful series. This time around, TV hunk George Clooney steps into the title role (making him the third chap to don the rubber codpiece of justice). The question on everyone's lips is, "How is Clooney as Batman?" That's a question that everyone has asked about every actor to take on this role, and it's a bit of an odd question. "Who cares?" is the correct answer. The Batman films have always been more about spectacle than acting or story or much of anything else. And Batman & Robin certainly tops them all when it comes to the spectacle department. Thanks to director Joel Schumacher, B&R is less like a comic book and more like the most flamboyant Broadway musical ever staged--imagine a cross between Ice Capades and the Disney World Main Street Electric Parade. Schumacher isn't one to shy away from that "visual overkill" we were talking about. In addition to Clooney as Batman/Bruce Wayne, we've got Chris O'Donnell as Robin, Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, some no-name as muscle-bound baddie Bane, several gratuitous cameos by the likes of Jesse "The Body" Ventura and Coolio and, just for good luck, a sprinkling of supermodels such as Elle MacPherson and Vendela. Whew!

So with all that high-wattage star power, where exactly is there room for a story? That's a puzzle worthy of the Riddler. Surprisingly, though, Batman & Robin has more going for it than most of the previous outings. It took me a little while to warm up to this one, but warm I did. Granted it's got more in common with the campy '60s TV series than it does with the brooding comic book; but once that's understood, things clip along at an entertaining pace. With so many damn stars, the film is forced to be fairly democratic and dole out a little bit for everyone to do. The biggest problem with previous films was that personalities like Jack Nicholson and Jim Carrey were allowed to dominate the proceedings, often derailing the plot with their camera-hogging antics. Amazingly enough, Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn't run the show here. Sure, he gets to spout his usual tired catch phrases ("Chill out!" and "Everybody freeze!" are just a couple of the choice nuggets), but we've got plenty else going on. First of all, the villains are given solid backstories to play with. Mr. Freeze is searching for a cure for his terminally-ill wife (she's been cryogenically frozen for safekeeping). Poison Ivy, meanwhile, is a radical environmentalist (she wants to kill all the mammals on earth and replace them with intelligent plants). Does anybody have any idea exactly what the Riddler was doing with that giant TV set of his in Batman Forever? In addition to the more stable character motivation, we've also got some great hero-to-villain interaction with the vampy Poison Ivy (Thurman is in full-on Mae West mode for this one) and some compelling domestic drama going on in Wayne Manor.

On the down side, several characters get pushed so far into the background, it's a wonder why they even bothered to show up for work. Vivica A. Fox (Will Smith's squeeze in Independence Day) is supposed to be Freeze's sidekick. She says one line and walks off screen forever. Under similar thankless circumstances, Elle MacPherson is saddled with the task of being Bruce Wayne's girlfriend (not exactly a job with staying power). She needles him about marriage in one scene, but that's about it for her. As for those expecting to see a lot of Alicia Silverstone decked out in rubber fetish gear, you're sure to be disappointed. Batgirl only shows up in the last few minutes of the film. Fortunately, Uma Thurman's sexy bad girl turn more than makes up for it.

I'm guessing if you're a hard-core Batman purist, then you've given up on these circus tent shenanigans long ago. If, on the other hand, you're willing to suspend your belief in the laws of logic, coincidence and (on more than one occasion) gravity, then Batman & Robin is some prime candy-colored entertainment for the summer season.

--Devin D. O'Leary

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